Theologians are back in business. What else can one conclude from the fact that twice in the past month requests have come to speak on election? The doctrine still fascinates believer and unbeliever alike.
But what does it mean? In essence, that there is a portion of the human race which God loves with special intensity. In a general sense, of course, God loves all men, even His enemies (Matthew 5: 44ff.) He welcomes every returning prodigal. He provides a perfect Saviour, commissions His church to tell the whole world about Him and directs His spokesmen to offer Him to every man, woman and child.
But there is a love greater than this: a love which means the total, invincible, passionate, almost reckless commitment of God to the salvation of His chosen. In their case He not only provides salvation and not only presses it upon their acceptance. He bestows it. He actually saves them.
This is the truth insisted on in all the great texts on election and predestination. We see it in Romans 8:29, for example. God's redeeming love means that He has fore-ordained some men and women to be conformed to the image of His Son. His mind is made up. He is absolutely determined. They will be called, justified and glorified: and God will move heaven and earth to ensure it, working all things together for their good (Romans 8:28).
The same truth stands out in Ephesians 1:5: "He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will". What lies at the heart of God's administration is His determination to redeem, adopt and glorify His own church.
1 Peter 1:2 speaks to the same effect. Like Romans 8:29 it speaks of God foreknowing. This knowledge is not something merely cognitive and intellectual. To know in the Bible is often the same as to love. We see this in Amos 3:2: "You only have I known of all the families of the earth". So far as mere foreknowledge went, God knew all the nations. But He loved Israel, taking her to Himself in an intimate, dynamic, exclusive relationship. This almost erotic sense of knowing appears clearly in Genesis 4:1: "Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain".
It is in this sense that foreknow is used in Romans 8:29 and 1 Peter 1:2. God knows with affection and commitment. He is in love with His people: and because of this He is resolved that not only will Christ be offered to them but His blood will actually be sprinkled upon them; not only will He plead with them to repent but He will irresistibly turn them to Himself; not only will He beseech their obedience and faith but He will personally confer these graces upon them.
Which brings us back to the fundamental principle: God's mind is made up. He is absolutely determined that these men, these women, will one day be utterly and totally Christlike. They will be called, justified and glorified; sprinkled with the blood of Christ, sanctified by His Spirit and directed inexorably towards a life of obedience.
This love deserves a little further clarification.
First, it is utterly unconditional. It is not a divine response to human beauty and friendliness. Nor is it a response to men's quest for God. It is a love which knows the very worst and yet loves: a love for the hostile, the indifferent and the repugnant. It is itself the source of all that might elicit it: faith, repentance and spirituality. It is not reasonless. But its reasons lie in God Himself and will probably never be revealed to us. The mystery will remain, transforming the Why me? of self-pity into the Why me? of bewildered gratitude. God has never been without loving us, and that is one of the greatest marvels of revelation. How can the contingent be eternal? Contingent this love certainly is. It is not, like the Father's love for the Son, part of the very form and shape of God. God could have been without it. It is there because it pleased Him (Galatians 1:16). And yet it has always been there. For as long as God has existed, our names have been engraved on the palms of His hands (Isaiah 49:16).
Secondly, only this love can explain why some people accept the gospel and some do not. Men will always say No! to Christ. They can see no beauty in Messiah. The gospel is folly, even blasphemy. Mere preaching, no matter how earnest or eloquent, can never overcome that. Men need new hearts. In fact they need to become new men. This is exactly what God does in the new birth. He gives us the faith He commands us to have.
The popular view of the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism is that Arminians teach that God loves all men whereas Calvinists teach that God loves only the elect. This is a gross oversimplification. We are talking about two entirely different kinds of love. To the Calvinist, redeeming love is God's determination to actually save. Far from believing that God loves all men in this sense the Arminian does not believe that God loves one single human soul in this sense. For him, God's love does not go beyond offering salvation. The last word lies with the human will. The Almighty stands helpless outside the door of the heart, the handle on the inside. He is defeated by man's No! Electing love, by contrast, means that God doesn't take No! for an answer. He opens the door, not roughly, from the outside, but gently, from the inside, so that we come to Christ "most freely, being made willing by His grace".
Thirdly, this electing love is never merely an appointment to privilege. It is also, always, an election to service. We see this clearly in the case of Messiah: "My servant, whom I uphold, my elect one, in whom my soul delights" (Isaiah 42:1). The same link appears in the case of Saul of Tarsus. He is not only "chosen" but chosen "to carry my name" (Acts 9:15). God called him so that He would preach Christ among the Gentiles (Galatians 1:15f.). To be God's son is also to be God's servant (doulos).
But there is also an inevitable link between election and suffering. Again, the outstanding example is Christ Himself, the Elect One who is also the Man of Sorrows. And here, once more, Saint Paul is as his Master: "I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name" (Acts 9:16). The same link appears in Christian experience. It is precisely those predestinated to Christ-likeness who have to face "the sufferings of the present time" (Romans 8:18); or, as Peter puts it, who live in this world as aliens and sojourners, often in heaviness through manifold trials (1 Peter 1:1, 6).
What are we to make of such teaching? That election guarantees no immunity from pain; and, conversely, that pain is no argument against our election. To be elect is to serve; and to serve is to suffer. If there is no suffering then the whole quality of our service is called in question. This same point is made, although from a different perspective, in Hebrews 12:8: whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and if we are not disciplined we have to ask whether we are sons at all.
It is probably because the doctrine of election so dramatically highlights our helplessness that men are so averse to it. They have expressed that aversion in a long series of objections.
First, they say, it is not fair. This is a fairly mixed-up notion. It really means that non-election is not fair; and behind this there lies the further notion that every man has a right to be elect. This is obviously nonsense. It is tantamount to saying to God, "You owe it to me to overcome my hatred of yourself, my resistance to your grace and my rejection of your gospel". God owes us nothing of the kind. "Use every man after his desert," said Hamlet, "and who should 'scape whipping?"
Secondly, the doctrine of election means that only a tiny number of men will be saved: a sentiment which Burns expressed memorably in Holy Willie's Prayer:
O thou that in the heavens does dwell!
Wha, as it pleases best thysel,
Sends ane to heaven and ten to hell,
A' for thy glory!
It is difficult to see the logic of this. There is nothing in the fact of election as such to prevent God saving a very large number of people, or even the vast majority of mankind. Nor is there anything in the Bible's own portrayal of election to suggest that it embraces only a tiny number. Most of the evidence, in fact, points in the opposite direction. "I will indeed bless you," said God to Abraham, "and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore" (Genesis 22:17). The triumphant church of the Apocalypse is "a great multitude which no man could number" (Revelation 7:9).
In fact, many Calvinists have erred on the opposite extreme from Burns. B. B. Warfield, for example, vehemently repudiated the idea that particularism and parsimony in salvation were equivalent terms and argued for what he called "eschatological universalism":
In the age-long development of the race of men, it will attain at last to a complete salvation, and our eyes will be greeted with the glorious spectacle of a saved world ... His people may be few today: the world will be His people tomorrow.
It would be very difficult to provide biblical warrant for such sentiments, but the fact that they were expressed at all indicates how unfair it is to saddle Calvinism with the dogma that only a tiny fraction of the human race are saved. In fact, only for Calvinism is universalism even a notional possibility, since nothing but invincible grace could overcome the spiritual resistance of all mankind and create in every human heart a welcome for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The third objection is a variant of this second one: election means that many of those who die in infancy are lost. In support of this men point to the infamous words of the Westminster Confession (Chapter X.III): "Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit."
It is one of the curiosities of history that men have heaped such opprobrium on these words while ignoring the much more definite insistence of Augustine that unbaptised infants are damned and the fascination of later Catholicism with the idea that such infants are consigned to the limbus puerorum, a limbo between heaven and hell. "Don't these words mean," critics of the Westminster Confession ask triumphantly, "that some infants are not elect and therefore perish?"
They mean nothing of the sort. The interest of the passage (which occurs in the chapter on Effectual Calling) is not in the number of infants who will be saved but in the way they will be saved. The core idea is that those who die in infancy can be saved; that even they, however, must be regenerated; and that God regenerates them as and when He pleases. All the passage has to say on the number of infants is that all elect infants will be saved. How many are elect (whether few or many or all) the Confession does not say.
Many Calvinists have, of course, been more explicit, holding that all who die in infancy are saved. Among them was the Free Church's own James Bannerman:
With regard to such infants dying in infancy, there is a blessed hope, which the Scriptures give us to entertain, that they are not lost but saved — that they suffer, and sorrow, and die here from their interest in Adam's sin, but that, not knowing sin by their own personal act or thought, they are redeemed through their interest in Christ's righteousness.
Individuals may be entitled to hold such a view but there could be no place for it among the dogmas of the church because it totally lacks biblical support. The Confession went as far as was biblically possible: Elect infants, dying in infancy, are saved.
Fourthly, says the objector, the doctrine of election fosters unholiness. It is thoroughly antinomian. It means that "the elect will be saved, do what they will; and the rest will be damned, do what they can".
This reflects a profound misunderstanding. It is true that the doctrine of election has no logical defence against the antinomian inference, "Let us sin, that grace may abound!" But the fact of election (as distinct from the doctrine) will never allow us to argue in this way. Even less will it allow us to live this way. We are elect to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). We are elect unto holiness (Ephesians 1:4). We are elect unto obedience (1 Peter 1:2). The very meaning of being loved by Christ is that He will nourish and cherish and sanctify us until at last we are spotless (Ephesians 5:29, 26). Holiness is the deliberate goal and object of election and the whole idea that we can be elect and yet live as we please is absurd.
Fifthly, it is alleged that the doctrine of election discourages evangelism. If God has His own chosen people, He will save them without us.
The immediate answer to this is that some of the most zealous evangelists the world has ever seen have been men who believed with all their hearts in the doctrine of election: men such as William Carey, John G. Paton, George Whitefield, Spurgeon and our own John MacDonald, "the Apostle of the North". These men did not use the idea of the sovereignty of God to excuse inactivity. On the contrary, what mobilised them was that the sovereign God commanded them to take the gospel to every nation and to every creature.
But that is not all. Election is an incentive to evangelism. We go precisely because Christ has all the authority in heaven and in earth (Matthew 28:18). We know for a certainty that our naked word will fall to the ground useless. Every man will say, No! but the risen Lord is able to open hearts. Surely that is the most stupendous encouragement: that, out there, God has His own elect and that our task is merely to gather them! We can believe that every sermon is an appointment with destiny: the moment set by God to bring one or more of His chosen into living encounter with His word.
This is the answer, too, to those who say that belief in election breeds passivity and fatalism; that it leads men to ignore the most earnest appeals and the most solemn warnings; that people will simply say, "We can't do anything. If we're elect, we'll be saved. If not, we won't. It's all up to God. Whatever will be will be!"
Of course, men will argue like that. They frequently do, and there is no logical answer to it. But it is entirely irrelevant. When our word becomes God's word it silences all such arguments and overcomes all such passivity. The blind, when commanded to, see. The lame, when commanded to, walk.
No one expressed this better than that marvelously inconsistent Arminian, Charles Wesley:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
But, persists the objector, the doctrine of election as traditionally formulated is misconceived. It misunderstands the relation between tune and eternity and between grace and human agency. It confuses fore-ordination with causality and represents God as an actor within the human drama, whereas He is in fact the Transcendent Playwright.
The trouble with this is that it tells as powerfully against the Bible itself as against Confessional theology. Biblically, election is causality. God is the author of the faith of His people, the source of their repentance and the agent of their transformation. Every grace of the Christian life is a matter of divine causality. The risen Lord put it there, as surely as He raised Lazarus from the tomb.
There is an important caveat, however. God is not the cause of unbelief and impenitence. This is what led theologians to hesitate to speak of double predestination (for example, the Westminster Confession reserves the word predestinate for those who are actually saved). The divine decree does not bear symmetrically on the elect and the non-elect. God is the cause of faith but He is not the cause of unfaith. The choice against Christ is men's own. It is an anomia, an unaccountable and inexplicable act of lawlessness, like all sin.
How Do We Know?
How do we know our own election? In Christ, who, as Calvin said, is "the mirror, earnest and pledge" of election. We cannot know our election before we come to Christ. Nor can we easily know it when we are alienated from Him by sin. But to have Him — to enjoy His benefits — is to know ourselves elect. To suffer for Him and with Him is to know ourselves elect. Or, at the lowest ebb of our faith, to desire Him is to know ourselves elect. The man whom God has left alone sees nothing in Christ. To long for Him, to want Him, to need Him, is a sure sign that transforming love has entered our lives. Then, "Less cannot satisfy, and more is not desired".